Tuesday, November 17, 2015

They Don't Make Them Like They Used To

I had been sitting in the right seat for only three months when I found out I was moving left. Arriving at a regional with more hours than most allowed me the quick move. Things were different then.
9/11 had not happened. It was still moderately fun to work for an airline. A life hauling passengers held promise. The roll-on bag of choice was a tank.
As usual, I had done things differently. When I arrived for ground school, I was asked to switch classes and learn the jet. Again, being relatively high time, opportunities were presented to me. I can still remember the shock on the guy's face when I said, "No, I'd rather start with the Saab." Every ladder climber wanted the jet and turning down the ERJ was unthinkable. That didn't matter. I was sure of my choice.
Having come from the DC-3, I already knew I would enjoy the Saab. The cockpit sat at the same level as the Douglas, the gross weight was extremely close to the C-47's, its gear had the same track, it was the same length, the tail was the same height (leveled), the power plants turned props of the same diameter and they even had the equivalent shaft horsepower. In fact, it even had a unique flap mechanism loved by those who flew it. The instructor was so impressed with it that he gave kudos to Saab for designing such a fail safe system. Unknown to him, it was identical to the "three's." So amazingly similar were the planes, I'm positive the engineers at Saab used the DC-3 as a baseline for their design.
Another great aspect of the Saab was that it had become the red-headed stepchild. At every airline since the beginning of time, the coolest people to work with have always been on the least respected aircraft. Fortunately, it also had the quickest upgrade. The guy who took my spot on the jet would wait two years. I was in class at five months.
Check it out - a show room fresh model.
Every pilot has that one thing he or she intends to do when they upgrade. Myself, I was tired of crappy roll-on bags and had decided to buy the best. It was known to most people as "the Purdy Neat Stuff bag." Framed in steel and fitted with smooth rolling skate wheels, its solid metal handle covered in a soft foam grip felt like the wheel of an exotic car. Drag one five feet and you would never drag anything else again. It was that much better than the others.
Walking out of Flight Safety with a type rating and a mission, the crew store was in my sights. A certain black bag would soon be mine. I still remember picking it out. At the time, spending almost $300 dollars on anything was a big deal to me. Gazing upon its beauty, the thought of how to get it home safely crossed my mind.
I have no idea why I didn't think to dump the old bag, but it never occurred to me. Instead, I decided I would check the new one and make the switch when I made it home. Looking back I have to laugh. What an idiot. A thrifty idiot, but an idiot no less.
Laying down the money for that bag felt like the purchase of a new Harley. Again, it was the nicest roll-on out there in a world where your bag spoke volumes about your life. No more trash for me. From there on out it was only the best.
Arriving at the gate for my flight home, I carefully attached a carry-on tag and handed it to a ramper. Passing it over to him, a guy I knew from work, made me feel better about putting it with the others in the back. You try to look out for each other at the airlines and I knew he'd take good care of it. We'd be home an hour later and that old bag would get the boot.
At the other end, I waited patiently for the Rolls Royce of roll-ons to appear in the jet bridge. One bag after another was handed up and still it was nowhere to be seen. Finally, the gate agent suggested I look at the carousel. Walking into the terminal en route to find my bag, the agent shouted to get my attention. My bag had made it into the jet bridge after all and she opened the door to let me walk down to grab it.
Walking toward it, I couldn't help but admire its shiny new paint. Clearly, it was the nicest bag in the terminal. Then I took the last two steps. That's when I saw its nearly indestructible frame and the thirty-degree radius bent into it. Yeah, that's right. It hadn't even been used and it was already damaged beyond what most thought possible.
See the bend?  This is how both sides look after straightening.
To end up with such a bend would require a ratchet strap torqued to extreme tension. I stood there in disbelief. Really. I'm not joking. I stood there speechless. What the f.... Then I began to laugh. Hell, I'm laughing now just thinking about it.
So much for the best bag on the planet. It was a new car which had been wrecked pulling out of the dealership. The shine was gone in one trip.
Telling my story to a friend, between fits of laughter he pointed out the company was well known for repairing any and all damages. His suggestion was that I take it to the store and get a loaner while they fixed it. And, that's what I planned to do. What I actually did though was straighten it as best I could so that it would work until I had time to take it back. That time never came.
Eventually, the bend in the frame grew on me the way a scar comes to represent a chapter in your life. It was part of its character and it was part of my career. Every time I looked at it I laughed. To this day I still do.
Fourteen years later, the frame's black paint is nearly gone. Scraped away by a thousand curbs in dozens of countries, its appearance tells a story only I can translate. To spare you the hours I'll make it a rundown.
It has been to every continent except Antarctica. Along the way it visited over fifty countries, traveled on almost that many airlines, and covered around six million miles. It has flown in hundreds of different aircraft and in some of the world's rarest. It was squeezed into a Pitts and traveled on a case of 120W in the belly of a B-24. A Taperwing WACO, New Standard, square tail Stearman, and a Harpoon are but a few of the planes that carried it. Once it even rode an OX-5 Swallow dead stick into Kalispell.  
What I've done it's witnessed. My career has left its mark. Among its fibers are the DNA of a Saab, ERJ, 747-400, -8, Dreamlifter, and now the 757 and 767. It rode along with a quarter of a million passengers, Formula 1 cars, bombs, flowers, major components of the 787, the first shipment of iPhone 6's, and just about everything else you could imagine. In a few days it will also go along on its last flight.
In much the same way every pilot has that thing he intends to do after upgrade, I've been holding onto this bag for the upcoming trip. I'm planning on this being my last airline and after the next few legs it will have flown with me at all of them.
All things considered, it's hard to believe it's over 14 years old.  They made
them right back then.
Yes, I will miss the people walking up, looking at my bag, and saying, "You flew for the regionals, didn't you?" Those who've been around the block can look at the worn metal frame and tell me my story. Remnants of customs tags reveal extensive international travel, the "Our pilots carry less than $20 cash" decal tells of scraping to get ahead, and the bend in the frame reveals a life 121 pilots know all too well.
Ultimately, though, I am left with a problem. The company which made that bag was sold to a Chinese company that cheapened the materials. Mine is 14 years old and new ones of less than two look twice its age. I could rebuild mine and remove its character in the process. Or, I could go out of this industry the way I came in, dragging crap. Maybe I'll create my own line of baggage instead.



rustyr said...

"Arriving at a regional with more hours than most allowed me the quick move"

"Again, being relatively high time, opportunities were presented to me."

Your opportunity to upgrade was based on the fact that you had more hours than your peers; not your date of hire and seniority?

What airline and union? Was there a contract which defined the upgrade process?

rustyr said...

crickets chirping...

Rich Davidson said...


Sorry, I had missed your previous comment. Yes, it is true. Airlines required a minimum number of hours for upgrading to captain in the year 2000. Most of the people getting hired were low time and did not meet the hours requirement. Therefore, I was able to upgrade ahead of others and this was legal per our union. I then spent the next three years moving down until all the kids who were hired ahead of me finally upgraded.

rustyr said...

Interesting! When you say "Airlines", which ones are talking about, and which unions? I know that legacy carriers such as Delta with ALPA had no such provision for upgrade. When your seniority allowed, and there was a vacancy, you had your opportunity to move up. There was no provision for moving sooner based on having more hours than someone else. There is still none today.

rustyr said...

or for watching someone else "presented with opportunities" based on their superior amount of flying hours.

I dont know Rich. Seems like a bit of a stretch